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The real reason Voldemort wasn't the worst villain in Harry Potter

In the magical world of Harry Potter, it's pretty clear from the very beginning that Voldemort (played in the film series by Ralph Fiennes), born Tom Marvolo Riddle, is the main antagonist. After trying to kill Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) as a baby in order to overturn a prophecy that predicts Voldemort will fall at the infant's hands, the Dark Lord spends the next decade in hiding. But, as his enemies predict, he comes back stronger than ever.

Throughout his time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry — the "Boy Who Lived" — must wage war against Voldemort every single year. The ongoing feud culminates in his seventh and final year at Hogwarts when, at the young age of 17, Harry and his best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) set out to destroy Voldemort's Horcruxes, hunting pieces of the Dark wizard's soul so that he can finally be killed once and for all.

Whether you've read the books a million times, watched the movies over and over again, or done both, you probably think that Voldemort is Harry Potter's worst villain — but you might be wrong about that. While Voldemort is a horrific, vindictive, and cruel mass murderer, there's someone arguably even worse than him: Professor Dolores Umbridge, played in the movies by Imelda Staunton. A high-ranking Ministry employee who will do anything for personal gain and professional development, Umbridge is the worst person in the Harry Potter series, particularly because she presents herself as a hero. 

Here's why Umbridge — and not Voldemort — can be seen as the worst villain in Harry Potter.

Dolores Umbridge betrayed her own family

J.K. Rowling, who penned the original Harry Potter book series, was pretty clear about why she created the character of Umbridge in the first place: she didn't want the concept of "evil" to be entirely black and white. She expresses this through Sirius Black (played in the films by Gary Oldman), who, during Harry's fifth year, tells his godson that the world isn't simply divided into totally good people and nefarious Death Eaters — making it clear that bad people can also work for seemingly virtuous causes like the Ministry of Magic.

In an essay on Wizarding World, Rowling relays how Umbridge turned on her own family in order to succeed within the Department of Magical Law Enforcement; she hated her father because of his lack of ambition within the Ministry and ultimately got him fired, and lied about her Muggle mother to assume pure-blood status. As Rowling tells it, anybody who asked about Umbridge's family would end up experiencing some kind of accident or misfortune, showing the lengths Umbridge would go to in order to cover up her real lineage or the fact that her father was a Ministry janitor.

Umbridge's unique brand of evil

Elsewhere in her essay on Dolores Umbridge published to Wizarding World, J.K. Rowling explained that she based Umbridge on a real-life figure in her own life whom she strongly disliked and who also donned pink, childish, and girly outfits that seemed in direct opposition to her true nature. However, Rowling made it clear that the fictional Umbridge is in an entirely different league when it comes to sadism and violence. She even noted that Umbridge's vile actions are on par with Voldemort's: "Her desire to control, to punish and to inflict pain, all in the name of law and order, are, I think, every bit as reprehensible as Lord Voldemort's unvarnished espousal of evil." 

Even Umbridge's name reflects how terrible a human she is: "'Dolores' means sorrow, something she undoubtedly inflicts on all around her," wrote Rowling. "'Umbridge' is a play on 'umbrage' from the British expression 'to take umbrage', meaning offence. Dolores is offended by any challenge to her limited world-view; I felt her surname conveyed the pettiness and rigidity of her character."

Compared to Voldemort, who makes no attempt to masquerade as a good person, Umbridge is a villain posing as a hero; she's the wolf in sheep's clothing, and that's why she's so terrifying.

Attending Hogwarts during Professor Umbridge's tenure was pure torture

Readers and viewers first meet Dolores Umbridge in the series' fifth installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when she takes a job as Hogwarts' Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher — though she's actually there to keep an eye on Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and the way he runs Hogwarts on behalf of the corrupt Ministry. Though Umbridge speaks to her students in a sickly sweet, simpering voice to pretend that she's a kind, comforting presence, she quickly reveals her true colors.

Some of Umbridge's worst deeds include belittling centaurs (and any creature that isn't fully human) and partaking in a centaur's attempted murder, humiliating Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson) and then relishing in Trelawney's pain when she tried to evict her from her home, committing actual child abuse, and, of course, denying that Voldemort had resurfaced — endangering the entire world in doing so.

Since Umbridge is parroting the entirely false narrative that Voldemort has not, in fact, returned by Harry's fifth year — which he definitely has — Harry immediately stands up to her during their first Defense Against the Dark Arts class and bravely tells the truth. As a result, Umbridge sentences him to detention, but her detentions present a much bigger challenge than Harry ever expected. As Harry writes "I will not tell lies" over and over again, Umbridge's special quill carves the sentence into his skin. In fact, thanks to this punishment, Umbridge is the only person aside from Voldemort to mark Harry's skin permanently.

Like all of the rest of the Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers viewers met, Umbridge only lasts one year, but unfortunately, she resurfaces at the Ministry during Deathly Hallows, where she's rounding up Muggle-born wizards and accusing them of "stealing" magic. Though she ultimately serves time for her crimes, in the end, she still goes down as one of the wizarding world's worst villains.

If you need to relive Umbridge's worst moments, she appears in the fifth and seventh Harry Potter films and books, though we can't imagine why you would want to.